The Tennessee Valley Authority has agreed to move 60-years-worth of coal ash that has been piling up on the banks of the Cumberland River.
The utility is following a court order to relocate the mountain of ash by its power plant in Gallatin, even while weighing whether to appeal a lawsuit by this week's deadline. Environmentalists convinced a federal judge in August that the ash could collapse and contaminate the nearby river.
"Regardless of whether we decide to appeal, we're still going to move forward with the process that we've been directed by the court," says spokesman Scott Brooks.
While already starting the process of environmental reviews, Brooks says the utility would prefer to keep the ash on TVA property, just move it away from the river.
"Either way, it will take anywhere from 15 to 20 some-odd years to make it happen," he says. "We can move about a million cubic yards a year. And there's at least 12 million cubic yards or more."
When cleaning up the catastrophic ash spill in Kingston, TVA only had to move about a quarter of what's in Gallatin, and that took six years.
Presently, it's unclear how the ash would be moved to a landfill. But even if barges or trains are used, Brooks says the ash will likely need to be on the road.
"If it's an off-site location, it would have to either be on a rail line or [a barge but] again it can't be next to the river," he says. "It would still involve trucks in some form or another, probably."
If forced to relocate the ash to a landfill, Brooks says the cost could be upwards of $2 billion. Moving to another location on TVA property at the Gallatin plant would be more like $550 million.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued TVA in the first place, argues those figures are inflated.
"TVA has also vastly overestimated both the time and expense for cleanup at Gallatin, based on what we’ve experienced with other utilities across the Southeast,” senior attorney Beth Alexander says in a written statement.
The SELC expects TVA will appeal the August ruling by Wednesday.